The crowd interested in the city comptroller job is growing, with five individuals already saying publicly they are considering applying for the interim position upon Mark J.F. Schroeder's "imminent" resignation as well as contemplating a run in this year's elections for the full, four-year term.
The transition to a new comptroller also could diffuse a potential legal fight over Schroeder's refusal to sell bonds to fund the city's emergency demolitions.
The five are:
- Patrick J. Curry, 38, Schroeder's spokesperson and executive assistant for about seven years
- Common Council Member Richard A. Fontana, 46, who has represented the Lovejoy district for seven terms
- Vanessa Glushefski, 37, an attorney and certified public accountant, who started as deputy comptroller this month
- John Rivera, 32, an assistant to the commissioner of the Erie County Department of Public Works
- Erie County Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, 62, chairperson of the legislature’s Finance and Management Committee
Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner said he has spoken briefly with most of them.
“I wouldn’t say at this point that there is a front-runner, and our committee will meet at some point to do an endorsement,” Zellner said, adding that the State Legislature has passed a reform bill that would expedite the election process beginning this year, which would ramp up the campaign process.
“Our petition season that would usually begin in June is now going to be earlier. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Zellner said.
Schroeder – a former Erie County legislator and Assembly member, who has served as the city's top fiscal watchdog since January 2012 – is leaving to become commissioner of the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The Common Council has 90 days from Schroeder’s resignation to appoint an interim replacement to complete Schroeder's term, which expires Dec. 31. The only legal requirements are that the person be a city resident for at least a year and be of the same political party. The 2018-19 budgeted amount for Schroeder’s position was $88,412, the comptroller’s office said.
The next comptroller will have the responsibility of going to the bond market in March to fund a Buffalo Water Authority project and again in April for the $23.3 million capital budget approved by the mayor and Council, $1.6 million of which was slated for emergency demolitions and which Schroeder had refused to bond because he said it didn't meet the definition of a "capital project." The dispute had seemed headed for court.
But when Schroeder leaves City Hall, the prospect of a legal battle could simply go away, said Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen.
"It could mean it would be off the table," agreed Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera.
Curry said he feels “very strongly” that the bond proceeds should not be used for emergency demolitions. “However, I’m a problem solver, and if there’s a way that we can work together to make this transition to funding emergency demolitions through the operating budget, that’s something I’m very interested in,” he said.
Curry, who has worked with Schroeder for about 16 years in various positions, said the office "needs a steady hand and a strong voice and someone who knows the lay of the land. I would be able to hit the ground running from Day One. There’s no learning curve for me.”
Fontana – one of the Council members who raised the prospect of a court fight over the bonding dispute – stands by the Council's approval of the $23.2 million capital budget, including the demolitions.
He said he has been approached about the comptroller position by people in City Hall, including in the comptroller's office, but it’s “premature” for him to say he’s definitely going to apply for the interim spot or run in the fall.
“It depends on who’s in the mix coming in and what their qualifications are, if they have government experience, and the ability to lead is huge,” said Fontana, chairman of the Council's Finance Committee.
Rivera also has worked for Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz as a liaison to the Legislature, working on drafting local laws and the budget, he said. He also has worked at HSBC and KeyBank as branch manager and consultant on investments and insurance.
The son of Council Member Rivera, he said he "wouldn't rule out going to the bond market."
Glushefski, appointed by Schroeder as deputy comptroller, said she would like to look at the issue "more fully" and have all the facts before making a determination.
"I am open to re-examining it as I will be re-examining existing policies, and we will be making a determination based on what I find,” Glushefski said.
Once Schroeder submits his letter of resignation to the Council, Glushefski automatically moves into the acting comptroller position, Schroeder said.
Her bid last year to unseat Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw was a good proving ground for her and should help if she decides to run for the city comptroller's post, she said.
“I definitely learned a lot of lessons, and if I decide to move forward, I can bring those lessons to the table,” said Glushefski, whom Zellner backed in that election. “I’ve made a lot of connections and met a lot of people.”
Miller-Williams said she would go to the bond market to fund the emergency demolitions but would “clearly articulate" to the mayor and Council that the general fund budget should have provisions in it in the future to take care of emergency demolitions.
Miller-Williams – part of the Grassroots political club that has worked to elect dozens of politicians over the past three decades, including Mayor Byron W. Brown – said she will apply for the interim appointment and is "seriously considering" running for the full term. She has reached out to Democratic leaders, including Zellner and Brown, for one-on-one meetings with each of them "to try to get as much support as I can initially."
Her association with Brown and Grassroots could work in her favor in the elections, she said.
“He knows my background. He knows how I am. I expect, and I hope, he would support me. If not, I will respect his opinion,” she said.
Zellner said “all the different organizations in the city will have to come to a consensus on who the endorsed candidate will be.”
“We’re pretty open to any of these candidates now. I think that everyone is pretty open with the names that have been floated. We will have to see what happens in the coming weeks,” he said.
Brown spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said "until or unless there is a vacancy at any position, the city generally does not comment."
Schroeder has clashed repeatedly with Brown over budgetary matters and unsuccessfully challenged Brown in the 2017 Democratic primary. Brown has accused Schroeder of "sour grapes" because he hasn't gotten over losing to Brown. Curry accused Brown of recruiting a challenger for Schroeder in this year's comptroller election.
Schroeder said none of that factored into his decision to accept the state DMV commissioner job.
“I am so confident that if I ran for re-election in 2019 I would win in a very big way," Schroeder said. "So to me, that never really entered the decision-making process.”
“When a governor calls me to ask me to join his team, to me it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he added. "I really wanted to do it.”
According to SeeThroughNY, the last DMV commissioner earned $120,800 when she left at the end of 2014. The post has been vacant since then.